I always find it surprising that some people and businesses view MLK Day as an optional holiday, when I grew up in a city that celebrates Martin Luther King’s life every year. Growing up in Memphis in the early 90s, I was surrounded by remnants of the Civil Rights Movement.
I was a part of countless youth programs in the summertime that took trips to the National Civil Rights Museum. I knew the tour like the back of my hand. The story that rang out the loudest was the story of Emmet Till, a 14-year old boy who was lynched in Mississippi in the 50s after being accused of offending a white woman in a grocery story. I could not wrap my head around a child being taken like that at such a young age. I could not imagine people doing such barbaric things to him.
The central exhibit of the National Civil Rights Museum is that of Martin Luther King, Jr.--our peacemaker, our hero, our voice. King had many famous quotes, but the one I heard most often as a child was, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”
Girl Scouts was the first organization to teach me about what it meant to serve others. I joined my troop at the tender age of nine. For us, MLK Day was a day of service, and we went out and volunteered wherever we could to make a difference in our community. Later, I went on to become a member of the first African American sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha Inc., during my sophomore year of college. My sorority would also volunteer for MLK Day and march in the community parade. We volunteered for two reasons: to honor and to celebrate King’s legacy.
When I became a young working professional in Memphis, my company would acquire tickets to the National Civil Rights Museum’s Annual Freedom Awards, an event that honored outstanding individuals for their significant contributions to civil and human rights. The Freedom Awards honored leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Colin Powell, Coretta Scott King, Harry Belafonte, and Julian Bond, to name a few. The museum honored King’s life and recognized others who have continued his work.
My childhood pastor, Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles of Monumental Baptist Church, was even a civil rights leader. He was standing right next to Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lorraine Motel when Dr. King was assassinated. I grew up hearing sermons about King’s life from Rev. Kyles’ perspective. People would visit our church from all over the world and would say, “We want to shake your pastor’s hand because he shook Martin Luther King’s hand.”
In 2008, filmmaker Adam Pertofsky created a short documentary, The Witness from the Balcony of Room 306, featuring Rev. Kyles. The documentary received an Oscar nomination at the 81st Academy Awards in the “Best Documentary Short Subject” category.
The Rainbow Push Coalition, an organization that pursues social justice, civil rights, and political activism, would come to our church every year on MLK Day to host a program honoring Dr. King. Every year, I would feel uplifted by the songs and various speakers who would visit from across the country. Elected officials, the University of Memphis basketball team, and community leaders would pack our sanctuary as we came together to remember how far we had come as a people and how far we had to go. The Rainbow Coalition is the longest standing Memphis organization to recognize Dr. King’s birthday.
When people and organizations make light of the holiday and choose to make it optional, they are sending a message that we as a people have arrived and that America is just and fair to all Americans, when that is, in fact, not true.
In King’s last speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” he states:
“I just want to do God’s will, and He has allowed me to go up to the mountain and I’ve looked over and I have seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.”
Dr. King said these words at the Mason Temple (Church of God In Christ headquarters in Memphis, TN) on April 3, 1968, the day before he was assassinated. The reason why it is important for us to acknowledge Dr. King year after year is because, unfortunately, we still haven’t reached the Promised Land.
When I researched the civil rights era, the dates ran from 1954- 1968--almost as if the movement ended when King passed away. Yes, the movement brought a lot of change for the better, but there are still discriminatory systems in place that keep African Americans oppressed. In 2021, there is still work to be done, and no one race of people can do it alone. We have to come together to continue on to the Promised Land. The change that we wish to see will only change with us.